We came to Paris to eat, and eat we did: foie gras slathered across buttery flotillas of brioche, thick bone-in steaks carpeted in roasted garlic and caramelized shallots, leafy salads studded with batons of bacon and nuggets of warm goat cheese, soufflés of Grand Marnier so ethereal that a raised voice could bring the whole thing down.
But even in a place like Paris, the allure of eating out does not last forever. Waiters grate, flavors wane, prices sting. So on our last day in town, we canceled our reservation at a nice restaurant in the 7th arrondissement and went about constructing a meal for an afternoon in Luxembourg Park. After all, if the moveable feast was meant for any town, it was meant for Paris, where rivers, parks and ancient buildings convert every square block of the city into a postcard, while an Eden-like bounty of portable delicacies can turn any dude with a few euros in his pocket into a genius.
But a great picnic is about more than just eating well outdoors, about inhaling swaths of creamy blue sky and devouring clouds like white elephants. It’s about proving your mettle as a navigator of exotic spaces, one who can combine instinct and research in equal measures to wrest from a town the finest provisions it has on offer. It’s a scavenger hunt for adults, played against the backdrop of the world’s greatest urban expanses. Done right, nothing is more transformative than a picnic: it doesn’t just take you to a different time and place, it takes you to a time and place where time and place feel entirely irrelevant. (And for those who have ever been accused of not being romantic by their partners, a first-rate picnic is a 10-year exemption from such thorny aspersions.)
Which is why the way you put together a picnic is every bit as important as the spread you eventually lay out across whatever grassy patch you choose. You can do the Whole Foods picnic, a one-stop session at a boutique grocer or a stacked market stand, buying neat packages of prepared foods—complete with knife, fork, and eating instructions—but for the picnic purist, this approach is blasphemy. Not only will you overspend, you will also undermine the entire ethos behind a picnic in a foreign place: exploration, interaction, and, to a certain extent, struggle.
Ideally, it should take you twice as long to put together the picnic as it takes you to eat it. Constructing a feast in a place like Paris or Rome or even New York is a reminder that specialization still exists, that beyond the reaches of one-stop superstores there are people who just bake bread, who just slice meat, who know wine and wine only. Your job is to seek these people out and make them your allies. Chances are, if they’ve dedicated their lives to the pursuit of one type of foodstuff, they will dedicate a minute or two to make sure you walk away with exactly what you want.
When it comes to the menu itself, improvisation is deeply encouraged, but a general road map will help you keep matters from spinning out of control. After years of nomadic picnic practice, I’ve forged this basic blueprint, which I’ll (humbly) call them the Five Pillars of a Perfect Picnic.